Past Lives, the story of Korean childhood sweethearts meeting decades later in the United States, is a film whose pulsating silences speak volumes about longing, the ways in which people change, and journeys they take. It’s based in part on the real experiences of first time writer-director Celine Song, who emigrated from South Korea to Canada at the age of 12 before becoming a playwright in New York City. It’s here she would meet her American husband, and would eventually spend a surreal evening seated between him and the Korean man who was once a boy from her past. However, Past Lives isn’t so much about a love triangle as it is about the possibilities contained within each person, and the winding trajectories of their lives. It’s a radiant work of delicate artistry, unfolding at the nexus of personal and cultural experience, and unfurling the secret worlds that exist within each mind, body and soul, yielding a shattering tale of nostalgic self-reflection and the passage of time.
The film, which is set to roll out nationally on June 23, is currently in limited release in New York and L.A. It has already garnered the second highest per-theater average gross for any film this year—the fourth highest of the decade—in addition to being one of 2023’s most critically acclaimed works.
It opens with a tongue-in-cheek POV shot of three strangers seated at the far end of a New York bar, as some unseen speakers playfully guess the relationships between them. It turns out the three subjects of this game are the film’s lead characters, Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Arthur (John Magaro). By making them the object of this exotifying gaze, Song orients us not within her own experience, but within the frequent and fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be an Asian immigrant traversing vastly different worlds with every step. However, before she lingers too long on this external dynamic, she takes us 24 years into the past, introducing us to the young, teenage Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) and Nora (Seung Ah Moon)—or Na-Young, her legal name before she adopted her western moniker—and their gentle, playful childhood crushes on one another, shortly before Nora’s family immigrates to Canada.
The film is split between three key periods in the characters’ lives. The first is this childhood setting in Seoul, though a significant chunk of it takes place 12 years later, when Nora is a 20-something playwright in New York City, and she reconnects with Hae Sung—a stiff but charming engineer—via Skype, just as he moves from Seoul to Shanghai. It’s here, during this transitionary period of young adulthood, that their relationship is briefly and intensely rekindled, with the requisite sleepless nights to overcome their time zone hurdles. The oceans between them, and the separate professional lives they live, cuts their long-distance romance tragically short. However, the film’s third and longest chapter is its heart and soul, taking place after 12 more years have passed (it appears to be set 2024, like some imagined future). Nora is happily married to Arthur, a fellow writer. They’re content in their tiny East Village apartment, but a jolting reminder of the past unsettles her sense of being, when—after a decade without contact—Hae Sung decides to visit her in New York.
Past Lives is a piece of art so organic in its conception that its very creation feels fated.
There’s a calculated precision to each minor camera movement employed by Song and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. However, any hint of a creative hand disappears from sight with each gentle tilt or push-in towards Nora or Hae Sung entranced by their laptop screens, and each rhythmic pan across the empty space between them when they finally reunite. Past Lives is a piece of art so organic in its conception that its very creation feels fated. Similarly, the events playing out on screen all surround the idea of destiny, and the complicated places the leading trio occupy in each other’s lives. Over years, they all discuss the Korean concept of In-Yun (or “inyeon”), a sense of providence born from the interactions between two souls over thousands of lifetimes. The more their past lives were entwined, the stronger their In-Yun in the present.
However, the “past lives” referred to in the movie’s title aren’t just this spiritual belief. In the present, Nora, Hae Sung and even Arthur’s interactions are guided by the snippets of the past we see; during vital dramatic beats, Song cuts to fleeting flashbacks of moments from Nora and Hae Sung’s childhood, in order to bring their emotions in the present more clearly into view. Whatever will or won’t become of them today, these are the lives and journeys they carry with them—journeys that have led each to the touching and hilariously awkward encounter teased in the opening scene, in which Arthur is a hesitant (but ultimately willing) observer to these old friends catching up in Korean, a language he barely speaks.
Playing the insecure but supportive Arthur, Magaro adds a simultaneous weight and levity the instant he becomes party to Nora and Hae Sung’s reflective reunion. However, it’s Lee and Yoo who ground the film’s fantasies of star-crossed romance in a devastating but nuanced reality. Lee imbues the Korean American Nora with a playfulness reminiscent of her childhood self, but she occasionally interrupts this with somber, self-assured interjections, definitively stating the kind of person she is today—while simultaneously probing for reassurance of this identity, from some unnamed, unseen source she cannot seem to find. Yoo, meanwhile, deftly balances Hae Sung’s charm and awkwardness in every scene; his body language speaks to the character’s mounting discomfort, but his eyes betray a depth the size of an entire universe with every glance, as if behind them lie dreams of infinite possibilities. Mainstream Hollywood may be consumed by multiverse stories, but the real multiverse lies within, and bursts to life through the deep consideration of paths un-walked.
For Nora, finding Hae Sung again is like finding an old love note written in a secret code, hidden away in a jacket that hasn’t been worn in years.
For Nora, finding Hae Sung again is like finding an old love note written in a secret code, hidden away in a jacket that hasn’t been worn in years. It’s a reminder of who she once was, and the parts of herself she’s often forced to keep culturally concealed as someone who immigrated young, and has mostly assimilated, but still dreams in Korean. Song allows silent tensions to linger between them, fixating far more on unspoken confessions and unseen trajectories, than on ill-conceived plans to throw away their lives. She captures what the two of them already mean to one another; when Hae Sung arrives in New York, the forecast predicts constant thunderstorms, but there’s a brief respite the moment they see each other. Hints of sunlight breaking through the city’s overcast canopy, illuminating the natural and manmade environments that Song makes sure to capture just as eagerly as she captures close-ups (her shots of nature, sunlight and fallen rain often recall the pointillist neo-impressionism of Georges Seurat, with simple landscapes and vistas concealing hidden brushstrokes and complexities).
Song’s masterstroke, however, arrives in the form of a quiet climactic scene composed of long, unbroken wide shots panning across space—à la Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia—in which her riveting silences take full-bodied physical form, as the weight of Nora and Hae Sung’s lives come entirely into view through subtle gestures, on an unsuspecting New York sidewalk. Something Song intrinsically understands about a quintessential New York movie is that unearthing the meaning of a place isn’t about probing at it with a lens, but rather, using the camera to inject it with emotional layers previously unseen. What Song manages to do, whether by accident or by design, is craft a film that changes the meaning of New York itself, as a space where even anonymity becomes instantly imbued with hidden layers of identity, waiting to be unearthed.
Nora instantly becomes one of the great New York characters, in one of the great films about what it means to be (and to become) American, a process that usually entails gaining something by leaving something else behind.
Nora instantly becomes one of the great New York characters, in one of the great films about what it means to be (and to become) American, a process that usually entails gaining something by leaving something else behind. Past Lives is about gazing at that which was left behind through a rearview mirror, in which objects and people might be closer—and more meaningful—than they first appear, revealing them to be reflections of our very selves, reminding us of who we no longer are, and yet, who we will always be.
Published on June 9, 2023